It’d been awhile. The last “ENVIRONMETALIST” odyssey had been way back in April, teaming the Big Four in Indio with a smattering of unofficial wildflower hunts. When, almost half a year later, the opportunity arose to be the merch bitch for Mendozza on their tour to support their new, self-titled release, it seemed like a slap in the face of Experience to stay put in San Francisco.
But the trip was destined to be more than selling T-shirts and trying to scrounge as many free drink tickets as possible. About a month previous, I’d discovered a graduate program up in Bellingham, and since the band’s last show was in Seattle, it only made sense to make a quick Greyhound scamper a couple hours north to check out a potential educational opportunity. Since over half of the program takes place in a national park, visiting the campus would mean some trail time after sitting in a cold van from Oakland to Seattle. And then, the icing on the environmetalist cake? Finding out High on Fire was playing in Bellingham the day after I’d intended to leave. Adventure extended.
Heading northward out of the City reminded me that it is indeed the fall season, and in other, more inland and colder parts of the Northern Hemisphere the leaves of deciduous trees were undergoing their famous transition. All the way up Interstate-5, golds, scarlets, and vermillions peaked out from the stubborn evergreens, bright bursts amidst the black-green ribbon of conifers disguising the clear-cuts lurking lonely behind them. Because my tree ID knowledge pretty much only extends to coastal California natives and Mediterranean species common in San Francisco, I didn’t even try to name any of the tree species in Oregon and Washington. Besides, too little open sky makes me a tad claustrophobic and long instead for the dry chaparral even if this suffocation feeling is prompted by an abundance of plants, which by all means, you think I’d be like a pig in shit, right? I almost agree with Cosmo, who recalled in an email during my trip: “I once drove through Oregon, and it was the longest drive of my life other than my drive through Montana. That was because Oregon was all trees. I know that breaks your heart, but it was the truth. Oregon was endless trees.” Dude, it doesn’t break my heart, I totally get it, though I’m sure we’d both feel differently being on the trail amidst said trees as opposed to zooming up the concrete artery in a car. (It also needs to be emphasized that the Pacific Northwest is NOT endless trees. Check out some problems in the forests, courtesy of The Oregonian, here.)
Off the freeway, same fallen story: The sidewalks in Eugene were buried four-inches deep in copper and peach-colored leaf litter. But it was cold — which is the weather that prompted the leaves to change hue, senesce, and fall in the first place — and my hands weren’t about to leave
my pockets for the camera. They almost emerged to wrap around a fresh pint or five of Ninkasi ale at their brewery near downtown. This, unfortunately, didn’t happen. But I saw their beers on tap and on store shelves all over the Pacific Northwest, including their seasonal dark double alt, Sleigh’r (read Phyte Club’s review from last year).
At Mendozza’s show at the Oak Street Speakeasy, though, I did have a delicious beer called Overcast Espresso Stout, made by Eugene’s Oakshire Brewing. A super smooth oatmeal stout, rich and black, it was the best of both worlds, the “hippie speedball” of beer and caffeine. Mike Scheidt, the vocalist and guitarist of YOB, was rocking out to the end, supporting the local music scene. The Obelisk ran a long interview with him earlier in the year. The intro praises Scheidt in ways that I, too, understood from our brief interaction at the show: “The guitarist’s openness, honesty and genuine nature is apparent in his every answer, and his discussion late in the conversation of the nature of ambition and how it relates to YOB presents an awareness of perspective that, much like his musical approach, is entirely his own.”
There was one other alcohol-based elixir that characterized my days in Oregon: Planetary Herbals Old Indian Wild Cherry Bark Syrup. This stuff saved my ass and my lungs, which got filled with crud after our first night sleeping in the van under clouds of breath-condensation at a rest stop near Redding. Available at most health food stores, this medicine is the only remedy I’ve found so far to mellow out my bronchial tantrums. I highly recommend the stuff. I’d take swigs off the bottle every couple hours or so until it was all gone, along with the salty green crud, a few days later. The main ingredient is wild cherry bark, or Prunus serotina, a woody plant native to the eastern half of the United States and the mountains of Mexico and Guatemala. One of its principal constituents is scopoletin, which has an anti-constrictive effect that makes breathing easy again and unaccompanied by buckets of phlegm. According to Mountain Rose Herbs, the bark is about 1/2% hydrogen cyanide — a very poisonous chemical — which is just enough to nail the coughing and to relax the bronchial tubes without producing any other freaky physiological effects.
Mendozza flew into and quickly out of rainy Portland. The last show of the two-week West Coast tour was at the Funhouse in Seattle, or the “Unfunhouse”, as we’d taken to endearingly calling it. This venue was right underneath the glow of the Space Needle. Though I have no excessively debaucherous tales to report (sorry, Metalcakes!), the story’s about to get more nature-y.
After living on herbal cough syrup for the past three days, I was excited to start Part II of my Pacific Northwest explorations. In
Seattle I spent an afternoon in a recording studio at the Art Institute where one of my oldest friends is learning how to engineer and mix music. And to put in my “It’s the small things that
make me happy” file, we saw some chanterelles in a fancy grocery store that still had needles and twigs stuck to them. Food with detritus on it = gourmet.
I headed to Bellingham. Though I was staring out the Greyhound window with my chin in my hand, reminiscent of Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive” video, I realized I hadn’t seen a million faces, nor personally rocked them all, or any of them, really. Nevertheless, I was excited to be solo and nearing my one destination that was wholly new to me. Supposedly, the college town of Bellingham has the lowest average sunshine amount of any city in the U.S. What this could mean for my botanical studies and serotonin levels, were I to move there for school, is a little daunting. The feel of the town was similar to Arcata but less hippie and less charming, though I’m not attempting to necessarily associate the two. My first impression was that people were super, easily friendly. All of Washington had this vibe, actually. Lots of head nods with random people; I didn’t miss the “I will look anywhere but make eye contact with you” weird feeling of fear and insecurity, or maybe just due to psychic-vampire overload, that often pervades the too-cool sidewalks of San Francisco.
Though it is based at Western Washington University in Bellingham, over half the graduate program I was scoping out takes place a two-hour drive southeast, tucked into the federally-protected mountains of North Cascades National Park. I have never seen any opportunity in higher academia even remotely as cool as this one. As part of getting a Masters in Environmental Education, students live at the North Cascades
Institute, taking field classes in cultural and natural history, learning how to develop an outdoor-based curriculum, and studying the ins-and-outs of non-profit management. Which is a perfect combination if, say, you have dreams of running your own environmental education center, or an environmental education center/recording studio and underground heavy metal club. Students get a ton of experience through teaching Mountain School, which is basically a three-day camp for fifth graders teaching them about ecology and stewardship. Grad students get to hang out with park rangers, and the occasional visiting nature writer (this Park is, after all, where Jack Kerouac was a fire lookout on Desolation Peak in 1965. Read that one? He did exactly what I would do:
Misanthropically yearn for solitude, set up house, get scared of wildlife and drink all his wine rations too immediately, and not really get much writing done.).
Getting to live in and learn about a new ecosystem is one of the most attractive aspects, for me, about possibly doing this program. The North Cascades! — new conifers, unfamiliar herbacious plants, and a ton of moss fuzzying up every conceivable organic surface with a soft green beard. And professionally, it seems designed for me personally, for unless I start making money off Phyte Club (which isn’t necessarily the intention, really), having more training and thus potential paid jobs within the environmental education field needs to happen. But I am a California girl to the max, dude, and being in the freezing cold and dark mountains is also one of my biggest hesitations. I wonder why this program can’t be somewhere crispy and open, like the Channel Islands or, god, even somewhere gross but relatively close to the Bay Area, like Fresno.
So that’s the dilemma, of sorts. But the nature in the North Cascades is undeniably beautiful. While I was there, the landscape was all green and gold, and getting a little white. Perhaps I should take a lesson from the fungi and the moss, who can survive so well in the cold? Personal biomimicry?
One more story from my campus visit. We journeyed from the mountains to Bellingham to do some ecological restoration with a couple of elementary school groups. This is an integral part of Mountain School — the grad students-now-teachers make sure to follow-up the National Park experience with a stewardship activity in the kids’ own community, in order to emphasize that “nature” isn’t just something pristine or far away, out of sight and mind, only valid on vacation. We were in a portion of a city park that was being overtaken by invasive blackberry and non-native hawthorne. We wanted to replace these species with Washington locals: cedar, spruce, and, for the edge and understory, salal (Gaultheria shallon). It was cold and rainy, and one of the nine-year-old girls was in sandals (this is something I would do…..). But they were, for the most part, totally into it. I had to laugh when one group wanted to be called “TNT” and started going into the AC/DC song. Then another kid said, “No, let’s be “Ace of Spades”! Are these all the children of metalheads?! Enviro ed, sign me up! Channeling Lemmy during habitat restoration with fifth graders!
Back on my own again in Bellingham, it was finally time for the most familiar piece of the trip, yet also the part which I’d been most anticipating. About a week before leaving Haight Street, I’d been messing around on Kill that Cat’s site, which
includes links to various tour schedules. Alas, High on Fire was playing in Bellingham right when I was going to be there! Holy shit — what good fortune, especially considering their last show in Oakland in August was so packed and sticky it was like a rainforest watered by metaldude sweat and overgrown with lianas of East Bay dreads. Feeling rather prissy and entitled to the front, I couldn’t really hang.
But this show was at a place called The Shakedown. It wasn’t a dive nor just a metal venue, but seemed to hold the fort in Bellingham as the small-to-med-sized club for small-to-med-sized bands. I didn’t pay as much attention to the opening bands, Torero and Indian, as one who proposes to write about music should. Instead, I’d pound a beer from the sweet bartender, then head out into the freezing night and speed-walk laps around the downtown, making sure my wrist stamp was still there to ensure my gratuitous in-and-out privileges. I was super stoked The Shakedown had Odin Brewery’s (“The most adventurous microbrewery in America”) “Odin’s Gift” ale on tap. This beer is brewed with juniper berries, which contain vitamin C and are reputedly good for fighting colds, which means I
probably should’ve had more than one. Though the beer used to be called a “ruby ale”, as of August, Portland, OR, heavyweights McMenamins Corp. informed Odin that they have this term trademarked, and must desist from also using it. Thus, Odin now has to come up with some other “red” moniker. “Crimson like the blood of Viking warriors Ale” perhaps? I saw this beer earlier at the grocery store, but realized that trying to taste and subsequently review it with a sinus infection — the sickness was cured from my lungs (thank you, wild cherry bark!) but had moved up behind my eyebrows — would be ridiculous. So, I only drank a pint. What my compromised tastebuds could sense, though, was a refreshing, medium-bodied beer, slightly zingy from the juniper berries. I would love find this RUBY ALE again and give it the review it deserves, but it is only available in Washington. Props to Odin Brewery, as well, for having this brief but great Norse Mythology Primer on their site.
In between beers and dark wanderings, I was happy to get the lowdown on High on Fire’s upcoming album. According to Matt Pike, their lead vocalist and guitarist, they’ve written about half of it so far, and after the holidays the band is going to record in Salem, Massachusetts. Perhaps they were inspired by the story of ergot poisoning causing LSD-style hallucinations and possibly the Salem Witch Trials. Or not: More likely they’re recording at Godcity Recording Studio, where Kurt Ballou, guitarist for Converge, mans the production, engineering, and mastering.
This sixth album should be released, Pike said, next spring, probably in May. After he plays the All Tomorrow’s Parties show in England with Sleep, it’ll be time for a summer tour to support the new album. As for this one’s theme, it’ll have to be big, considering it’s following in the serpentine slither of Snakes for the Divine (E1, 2010), which Pike was quoted several times (including on MTV) as saying was largely lyrically built around the David Icke-ian theories of Adam and Eve and reptilian DNA. Pike went off about the new album, and I’m sorry to say I didn’t have a little tape recorder on me. He started weaving a tale of the Stygians and the black lotus, which was the part I latched onto, of course. Nelumbo nigra! Botanically, there exists no such plant, actually. But “Black Lotus” was a black metal band from Victoria that split up in 2008, and is a brewery in Detroit (with a beer called “Fuckin’ A Apricot Wheat”), and is a now-defunct Grecian record label that once had a bunch
of metal bands, including the all-lady Astarte. It is also the most powerful card ever made in the game of Magic: The Gathering, which seems a little too D & D for HoF’s intentions.
However, I think I found what Pike was referring to, via a weird little website about Robert E. Howard, his fantasy novel The Hour of the Dragon (Gnome Press, 1950), and, yeah, Dungeons and Dragons. According to this site, black lotus pollen is deadly and provokes nightmares, but the dark wizards of the evil kingdom of Stygia learned how to harness its properties that can restore magical powers. I always had a feeling those HoF dudes were into ethnobotany.
As for the show, it was lacking, for the first half at least. I do always appreciate that they consistently play a good chunk of songs from their first two or three albums as well as their more recent ones. It took a while for them to get in time with each other at the beginning of several songs, and Pike had to rush over to his pedals on a couple occasions to “Oh shit!” stomp them. This wasn’t horrible, just a bummer to watch. It was the heavy and loud I love and expect, but some nights are just a little off, and this was one of those. And is it just me, or does it seem that since Death is this Communion (Relapse, 2007) came out, a lot more bro-brahs are at shows and acting like it’s the Superbowl or something? I mean, I can’t claim to have been paying attention from day one, when The Art of Self-Defense (Tee Pee, 2001) was HoF’s only release, and it’s great if more people are moved by good music. Crowd chaos is nothing to complain about if one likes this genre, especially if you’re a brat like me and plant oneself in the midst of the throng with double-fisted beers to prevent mid-set dehydration. But something, for example, about the anthemic “Rumors of War” pounded out live just always feels like a frat party.
Perhaps the next environmetalist rampage will involve seeking the elusive black lotus. Perhaps in a year or so, Phyte Club will be writing a lot more about Pacific Northwest flora, peaking out of the snow. Perhaps Odin’s Gift will make it down to Cali one of these days. So many mysteries, prompting me to leave you with this quote from Ken Kesey, of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Signet, 1963) and Merry Prankster fame. I recently came across it in the book, Nature and the Human Soul (New World Library, 2008), by Bill Plotkin:
“The job is to seek mystery, evoke mystery, plant a garden in which strange plants grow and mysteries bloom. The need for mystery is greater than the need for an answer.”
This trip is done, but another’s begun: As you read this — if you’ve made it to this long-winded point, congrats! — I’m in Costa Rica. Hopefully I’m taking tons of photos of exotic and luscious flowers, without getting accosted by any one of the countries’ 17 species of venomous snakes. Maybe I’ll find some underground Costa Rican metal bands, and a local ale. Colorful jungle posts to follow.
A well-edited clip of one of two Mendozza shows at Eli’s in early November:
I couldn’t help it. The girl with the drum sticks at 2:12 never fails to capture my heart (zebra-striped lycra leggings and a man-o-tard, on the other hand, don’t, ever):